Russ Canzler, Dan Johnson, and the Quad-A Label

There’s something strangely fitting about the fact that both Russ Canzler and Dan Johnson have found new homes in the last 24 hours. Canzler was traded yesterday from the Rays to the Indians for cash considerations, and Johnson signed a minor-league deal with the White Sox this afternoon. This is despite the fact that the Rays — those masters of market inefficiencies; those buy-low deal hounds — were recently searching for a first baseman, but decided to sign an aging Carlos Pena for $7 million rather than take a cheap gamble on either player.

On the surface, it looks odd that the Rays let Canzler go without giving him a try at first. After all, Canzler was named the International League (Triple-A) MVP last season after hitting 18 home runs and posting a .410 wOBA. He may have been slightly old for the league, but it’s not like he was pushing 30; Canzler was 25-years-old last season. So what gives? Did the Rays miss out on some cheap, high upside talent? Free Russ Canzler!

This discussion touches upon a larger debate, though: do Quad-A players exist? Can a player mash in Triple-A, but not be able to make the adjustments to be a successful player in the majors?

When I first got involved in the sabermetic community back in 2008, I used to believe that “Quad-A” players were a myth. Players like Dan Johnson, Russ Canzler, Brandon Allen, etc. had simply never been given a long enough chance to succeed and adjust in the majors. For whatever reason, teams were scared off of them based on scouting, while their numbers clearly pointed out that they were capable of contributing in the majors. At the risk of being overly broad, I think this was a popular saber-friendly stance at the time.

But times have changed. As Kevin Goldstein pointed out earlier this winter, there are some convincing reasons to believe that Quad-A players do exist. Some players may have the tools necessary to destroy Triple-A pitching, but due to their skill sets — poor defenders, unathletic, slow swings — they have a difficult time succeeding in the majors. When you think about it in the abstract, prospects fail in the minor leagues all the time; at some point, everyone hits their ceiling. Some players can succeed in Single-A, but then can’t make the jump to Double-A. Others can thrive in college, but can’t make the adjustment to pro ball. When looked at through this lens, it’s unrealistic to imagine that Quad-A players don’t exist at all. The trick is sorting out which prospects have hit their ceiling, and which ones need to be given more time to adjust.

When you dig deeper, Russ Canzler is far from perfect. Even the most optimistic scouting reports on him state that he’s a poor defensive player (even at third and first base), and many scouts question his bat speed and athleticism. These aren’t concerns that will show up in Triple-A stats, but they could make it difficult to translate successfully to the majors. If you can’t play defense and your bat speed makes it difficult to catch up to major league pitching, you’ll have a tough time hitting well enough to stick at first base in the majors.

Does this mean Canzler is doomed for failure in the majors? No, certainly not – there have been players with similar concerns that have adjusted to the majors (and one Dirk Hayhurst believes in him). But it does mean that Canzler’s odds of becoming a viable major-league first baseman are lower than his Triple-A stats lead us to believe. He could probably be a .320 wOBA, replacement-level first baseman right now in the majors, but the Rays need more than that if they’re going to make a run at the postseason yet again.

Rolling the dice on a “Quad-A” players is a fine strategy (and I’d like to see it happen more often), but let’s be careful not to overstate the certainty that players like Russ Canzler, Dan Johnson, or Brandon Allen will thrive. As both Johnson and Allen showed last season — albeit in small sample sizes — there’s normally a reason these players haven’t been “freed” before.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

17 Responses to “Russ Canzler, Dan Johnson, and the Quad-A Label”

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  1. Eminor3rd says:

    Why do the White Sox need the Great Pumpkin? Even if Dunn retires, you gotta figure you want Viciedo at 1B/DH

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  2. ValueArb says:

    Hypothesis: There exists a type of position player, that we will call the AAAA player, who crushes AAA pitching, but struggles against MLB pitching enough to be an unsuitable MLB player. These AAAA players are usually the best hitters in AAA, but will never turn into MLB players.

    Corolloary: If the hypthoses is true that AAAA players are failing to get promoted due to transitional issues, it means MLB clubs are promoting players (call them Promotees) who didn’t hit as well as AAAA hitters did against AAA pitchers, yet the Promotees are more successful in the MLB.

    It seems extremely unlikely that there exist Promotees who can’t hit AAA pitching as well as AAAA hitters can, yet at the same time can hit MLB pitching better than AAAA hitters can. So the answer is likely multifold as you’ve touched on.

    a) AAAA have so little defensive value that the value of the bats isn’t enough to earn a MLB roster spot.
    b) Some Promotees continue to improve in the MLB stints while AAAA players stagnate, if the Promotees were demoted back to AAA they’d probably mash just as well as the AAAA players because the Promotees have become better hitters.
    c) Sample size. We overly rate some hitters as AAAA because of a hot streak in AAA that made them look substantially better than they were. Or they stink in a small number of PAs in the MLB because they weren’t given enough time.

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    • Urban Shocker says:

      I can prove your corollary in perhaps a smartass way, though it’s not meant as such: Miguel Cabrera, who never played against AAA pitching.

      And I say that it’s not in a smartass way because it touches on a larger point, i.e., how teams manage their farm systems. While there are certainly the Twins and the Rays who insist on their players going all the way through AAA (salary reasons aside), there are also plenty of teams that graduate straight from AA. Which means the competition level at AAA, or lack thereof, makes translations from that level tricky. Of course I assume that minor league translations assume AAA is closer to MLB experience; it may be the case that there is no difference assumed between AA and AAA.

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    • Sylvan says:

      “It seems extremely unlikely that there exist Promotees who can’t hit AAA pitching as well as AAAA hitters can, yet at the same time can hit MLB pitching better than AAAA hitters can.”

      Is this actually so unlikely? Picture a player with extremely good pitch-recognition. This is going to help her more in MLB than in AAA, because in MLB she will face harder-to-recognize pitches. The MLB promotion allows her to demonstrate abilities that a) not everyone in AAA has, and b) were to some extent wasted against AAA competition.

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      • DJG says:

        Wade Boggs for example. She actually hit better in the majors than the minors.

        Just one example, but I think it’s certainly believable that some hitters might experience more positive change (less negative change) than others when going from the minors to the majors.

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      • Sylvan says:

        I knew I was going to get snarked for making my hypothetical ballplayer female.

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  3. KCDaveInLA says:

    Kila Ka’aihue anyone?

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  4. Rob says:

    How can you post this article and not mention that 29 year old 2011 Pacific Coast League MVP Bryan LaHair will be the Cubs opening day first baseman?

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  5. robertobeers says:

    … John Bowker.

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  6. Indians fan in SF says:

    I definitely agree with the small sample size issue – that AAAA players often get a few dozen at-bats, at best, to shine in the majors and if they don’t mash, they’re written off, especially if the MLB roster doesn’t have a real hole in it and if that team is likely – as so many are – to purchase or trade for talent instead of giving a rookie a real shot. That being said, I think the biggest reason by far is simply quality of pitching. In the majors, a batter is usually facing a starter with at least 3 or 4 quality pitch repertoire and relievers often with power unlike they’ve ever seen. The quality of pitching is so much higher than triple-A. I think the article nails it when it says that everyone has a ceiling.

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  7. CJ says:

    It seems to me that most of the classic 4A hitters are 1st baseman / Left Fielder types. The required slugging ability for those positions is so high that elite minor league hitting skills are necessary. There isn’t much room for MLE reduction for these players. If, for what ever reason (perhaps the player is blocked), the hitter can’t make it to the big leagues when he is younger than 25, teams assume that there is no upside or further development of the player’s hitting skill, and he becomes confined to 4A status. These players have the skill to at least become back up players in the majors—but how many teams want to spend a roster spot on a back up who can only play 1st base or LF? Back ups who can play several positions (e.g., both corner infield or outfield position) are more desireable.

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  8. Bookbook says:

    Part of the problem is the 17-man pitching staffs that choke off roster space for backup 1b-PHs to worm their way in and eventually establish that they can play. You don’t hear slot about AAAA pitchers…

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  9. Kernel says:

    I read last year that most “blue chip” prospects, at least for the Angels, jump from AA Arkansas to the Majors, that Salt Lake, their AAA affiliate, is more for regular roster fills, the type of player that defines replacement level. Tyler Chatwood, Mike Trout, and Garret Richards all went from AA to the bigs last season alone.

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  10. Davor says:

    Most AAAA guys I can think of are guys with big power and suspicious contact skills. Just looking at Yankees recently, Shelly Duncan, Jorge Vazquez, even Shane Spencer. All have good, even great power, but none can make consistent contact or take walks. In minors they can feast of mistake pitches and they don’t face too many great, or even good breaking pitches. But in majors pitchers who give too many mistake pitches go back to AAA. Also, scouting is much better in the majors, so players who can’t hit off-speed pitches don’t see fastballs.
    If such players can play some D, like Spencer and Duncan, they make solid backup corner outfielders/1B and may find their place as last man on the bench, 5th outfielder. But if they can’t, there is no space on the roster for backup DH who often can’t crack 100 OPS+.

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